Jesus is condemned to death

The news came to me from Brazil in the late 1970s.  The transparent airmail envelope, striped in green and yellow, contained a premonition of a death.  Recently returned from a three-year stint there, I knew that such premonitions were not to be taken lightly.  In the Sertão, Brazil’s huge swath of semi-arid land buried within the nine states occupying the continental bulge, the supernatural was commonplace. Everyone was a believer. 

Rita, one of the seven sisters of my Brazilian boyfriend, wrote me that her mother, Dona Teresa, awoke one night to the crack of shattering china.  Her husband lay beside her, sleep undisturbed.

The candle she’d left burning in the blue and white saucer at her bedside had fallen on the floor, extinguished.

“Raimundinho”, Dona Teresa thought. 

Little Raimundo was the nephew who had left the Sertão for São Paulo.  His wife, Marilu, had a good job there and he spent his days, legs folded, on a striped mattress set on the floor, trying out new songs on his guitar, singing the old ones that reminded him of home.   Rai was a Brazilian ringer for Picasso’s Man with Guitar, spare and downcast.  The city had consumed whatever effervescence he’d carried south with him. 

Every evening before she went to bed, Marilu prepared a multi-course meal so that Rai would have a hot lunch the next day while she was at work.  She made okra with dried shrimp and coconut tapioca cake.  Occasionally, friends from the Northeast would pay a visit but mostly Raimundinho was alone in the apartment.  One high window let in the city’s hazy light.  

In 1974, I was moving counter to Raimundinho’s clockwise, trying to get out of São Paulo and back to Bahia where I had just spent Carnaval.  I liked to drop by his place in the early evening to catch a whiff of whatever Marilu had put on the stove to braise, enough garlic, onion and cilantro to matar saudades, ease the longing, for the north. And also to find out if there was any family gossip about the boyfriend who was waiting for me up in Bahia.  Rai was his cousin.   

Dona Teresa had reached for her husband’s shoulder and gently rocked him.  “Geraldo,” she said, her voice breaking.  “Raimundinho is dead.”

Jesus accepts the cross

The first time my boyfriend broke up with me, I had been living with him in Salvador, the coastal capital of the state of Bahia, for about two months.   It was a hard break but not permanent.  Two of his sisters, who shared a tiny house with us, suggested a road trip as a diversion.  We headed inland, first to Serrinha, where their parents and young siblings had settled, and then deep into the Sertão to Monte Santo, a ten-hour drive.

I had not come to Brazil in 1973 as a journalist, a researcher or an academic.  I was a self-taught smarty-pants at the tail end of girlhood with something to prove, a blaze of anger burning me up with desire to set my own rules, make up my own epic story. I landed in Brazil under the nominal cover of a Rotary Club scholarship for high school seniors.  I was ready to fight to spend my days there doing something extraordinary.

The sisters had called the Sertão a desert so I imagined the Sahara, swirling white sand dunes blown across a cerulean sky, not the rocky soil and scrub brush of the Mojave.  I didn’t have any affection for deserts, landscapes for which my own reference point was the Westerns my mother infrequently watched on a small black and white tv.  The patches of green and occasional rolling hill surprised me.  What they all had in common was the emptiness.

Sertão was a peculiar word.  If you broke it apart, you could look at it as ‘ser’, to be, and ‘tão’, so much.  Portugal offered such a constrictive orientation; the colonizers who took possession of Brazil, Angola and Mozambique needed an expansive term to encompass these vast uncharted territories.  In its original usage, ‘sertão’ meant ‘unknown space’. It might as well have meant unknown universe.

I remembered a song that my Sertanejo friends had written, Ser Tao, the Tao lacking the diacritical tilde.  When I looked up the meaning of the Buddha’s Tao, I read ‘to be the way, the path, the road, the underlying principle of the universe.’  The skinny highway that led us from Salvador north into the nowhere of the Sertão, though unfamiliar, felt comfortable, somewhere I was just fine to be traveling.  A blank slate, open to what would come next.

Jesus falls for the first time

I savored the words, Sertão, sertanejo, rolling them around in my mouth.  Curling my tongue behind my top front teeth and expelling the tão through my nose.    There were other words to learn, too:  cangaço, a Robin Hood-style banditry.  When used as an adjective, it could be understood as a pejorative, cangaceiro, a renegade who could not adapt to Brazil’s coastal living.  Caatinga indicated the Sertão’s iconic vegetation — a white forest, in the Tupi indigenous language — although the landscape was colored brown and sage and smelled of distant smoke.

The girls and I packed up a few things and were soon bumping down a two-lane asphalt in a beat-up Bug into Bahia’s mythical backlands.  The sisters had stoked my imagination by telling me about Canudos, a settlement nearby Monte Santo, where a series of battles had been fought by the Brazilian government against civilians in the late 1800s. The opposition had been a ragtag population of runaway slaves, indigenous peoples and mestizo outcasts unable to unravel where they came from, where they belonged.  The Canudos rebels established an agrarian utopia, a kind of rural socialism, under the leadership of the messianic Antonio Conselheiro.   Where there had been nothing, together they built a simple, sustainable community that welcomed strangers.

Their movement was so successful that in 1896 a regional police force was sent out to put down what was labelled as a pro-monarchy rebellion against the nascent republic.  

In this land, a man is worth nothing unless he takes up arms to change his own destiny.”

The government lost the first battle. 

Jesus meets his mother

Serrinha, the gateway to the Sertão, once served as the dusty crossroads for columns of white cattle herded eastward to market.  During Brazil’s dictatorship of the 1960s-70s, Serrinha had matured into a town.  It was also a stop on an improvised underground railroad for political dissidents and Communist party members. 

Dona Teresa, greeted us as we entered the family house through the narrow hallway that opened up to a combined living/dining/cooking area.  In one hand raised over her head, she held a chicken by the neck, a few feathers floating to the floor.  Through cloudy glasses her keen eyes appraised me.  She pointed her free hand at me and turned to her daughters, “Does she speak Portuguese?” “I do,” I said, tilting my chin upward so she would see my spunk.  She made a small grunt of disbelief and hauled the chicken out the back door where she would snap its neck and get it ready for the waiting pot on the stove.

Simone of Cyrene carries the cross

My boyfriend’s family arrived in Serrinha in 1970, the year Brazil became the three-time world champion in soccer.  They emphasized the soccer.  After that, the biggest story was Hamilton.

Dr. Hamilton Safira de Andrade ran the local hospital.  It seemed strange to some that a graduate of one of the best medical schools in Brazil would return to the countryside to practice.  He provided medicine for patients who couldn’t pay and filled in for the chemistry teacher when the high school couldn’t find one.  He owned the best house and the best stereo system.  Hamilton was as close as Serrinha got to celebrity.

Hamilton inaugurated a youth debate group in Serrinha, Grupo Debate, which was affectionately shortened to Gruda-se, meaning to stick to, to glue, to adhere, to take. He taught the older kids, six out of twelve in my boyfriend’s family, about the student movements in France and in the US, played Miles Davis and Nina Simone, explained Marxism and the Cuban revolution.  They took the “Gruda-se” imperative to heart, forming deep loyalties to the man who nurtured their future artistic and political paths.   “Everything,” my boyfriend’s younger brother wrote me, “that a young person from the country needed to transform idleness into precious time.” 

With the charm of a Pied Piper, Hamilton could tease out a teenager’s intellect, giving all of us who filled his living room the benefit of the doubt that we were smart, clever, full of talent.  He peppered me with questions, as if my being from abroad might bring some new revelations or insights about how the world far from the Sertão was getting along.  All I had were half-formed impressions of Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver and the incendiary Australian feminist Germaine Greer.

People who were uncomfortable with the leftist philosophy Hamilton seeded began to whisper. Why did the tall, silver-haired man spend so much of his time with kids?  Rumors circulated that he must be some kind of pedophile.  He was jailed several times, but always for political transgressions.

A few years ago I went to the arthouse theatre in Salvador to see a documentary about a woman who was killed by the military dictatorship in Bahia in 1970.  The film told the story of Iara, the girlfriend of the renown Communist leader Carlos Lamarca.  Pregnant, she fled from São Paulo north to Bahia to evade capture by the Department of  Special Operations, Brazil’s secret police.   To my surprise,  Hamilton appeared on the screen, tears in his eyes.  He said that Iara had come to him for an abortion, since she didn’t want to risk the military taking her baby from her and using it as a weapon against Lamarca.  I think he didn’t perform the abortion in the end. But he confessed that he had hidden many anti-dictatorship activists in his home.  Probably one or two had been sequestered there on the nights I went over to listen to Hamilton’s jazz LPs and readings of Jean Paul Sartre.

Veronica wipes the tears of Jesus

Despite the breakup, I received a family welcome in Monte Santo.   Few Americans had passed through the region.  Peace Corps volunteers, I think.  People were uncertain about what it meant to come from outside of Brazil.  “What onibus did you take to get to São Paulo?”, I was asked. Certain questions made me wonder if they doubted whether the world was round.  Electricity was new.

There was great excitement around introducing me to Ermita.  Bone thin, stringy hair, her printed cotton dress flapping about her, she smiled at me, shy and welcoming.  In her solitary room she stood like an ancient orphan, face and hands marked by deep wrinkles and leathered skin, the physiography of a life lived in drought.  She was the only person in Monte Santo related to no one.

What was extraordinary about Ermita was her music, her ability to play guitar and write her own songs.  I wondered if her solitude was the result of her choice of profession.  It was difficult, if not impossible, for a rural woman of her generation to be an artist and also keep a man.

My boyfriend’s father, Geraldo, was the one male in the community who supported including her in the serenatas, special occasions or holidays when men with guitars gathered in the town square or in the door way of a particular household to commemorate a significant event.  Ermita was eager to show me her compositions but she couldn’t actually play them for me – it was Holy Week and she had unstrung her guitar in respect.  She motioned for me to sit beside her on her bed to look through her well-worn collection of sheet music of popular songs.  They lay in a paper folder which she opened on top of the naked guitar, balanced reverently on her knees.

Having no children of her own, Ermita eyed me closely to examine my potential.  Part of me wanted her to choose me as her heir in art, but, even if she did, I knew I wouldn’t stay.  I was just eighteen and other destinations awaited, where, I hoped, music and loneliness wouldn’t be my sole companions.

Jesus falls for the second time

A large meteorite was discovered near Monte Santo in 1784 by a young cowherd grazing his stock.  “Bendegó”, Tupi language for fallen from the sky, described the great rock their ancestors had witnessed hurtling to Earth.   Eleven million indigenous people lived in Brazil before the Europeans arrived. Within the first 100 years of colonization, 90% died of disease.  In 2019, when the National Library burned to ground in Rio, destroying rare documents and archives of hundreds of years of Brazilian history, Bendegó was the lone artifact that survived among the ashes. Indomitable.  It was believed to possess magic that would bring the rains to the parched lands.

In the second battle of Canudos, in January 1897, government forces were once again defeated.

Those who remained of the battalion limped into the rebel camp where they were received in silence. 

Jesus meets the women of Jerusalem

Tia Pipia and Tia Vilma and Tia Carminha, my boyfriend’s aunts, owned a large house off the town square in Monte Santo.   When I entered, they were seated at a large kitchen table where a naked bulb dangled overhead.  What did they look like?  Canny and ready for fun, I am certain. Smoked cigarettes.  Not sure, but probably.  The aunties were dressed in mismatched print blouses and skirts, patterns faded from hand scrubbing in the yard, rubber flip flops on their feet.  I dragged up a chair, scraping the linoleum.

There were no men present.  We talked and giggled.  I was urged to taste fruits that had to be excavated from prickled skins:  Fruit of the Count, green and shaped like a pine cone, full of tiny buds that were peeled off and popped in the mouth, seeds included.  Umbu, another green fruit, was small and round and caused an involuntary pucker like a sour cherry.  These were followed by sweets that were mostly pure sugar or solid molasses meant to be sucked until they had softened enough to chew.  Each room in the house possessed a single piece of furniture – a bed or a chair or a table —  as if the residents were still in the process of moving in.  One yellowed color picture of Jesus was tacked to the wall.

To pass the hours until the dark descended like a length of velvet, the aunts decided that my long hair needed a permanent wave.  They set a large plastic tub on the table and had me lean backwards so they could slosh on a solution that nearly made me gag.  Then they began to twist each strand onto narrow rollers, pulling my hair to the point that I thought they might rip a hunk right out of my scalp.

As they worked they asked me questions about their nephew –  a ribald interrogation full of words whose meanings I could guess at but were outside of my familiar vocabulary.  Jokey euphemisms for penis and orgasm.   Their bawdy talk surprised me. 

It was impossible to get comfortable on my thin pillow, scarf-wrapped head pinched by the rollers all night long.   The next morning, when everything had been unrolled, removed, and carefully combed out, the aunties led me to a dime-store mirror offering a murky reflection.  “See,” they said, with satisfaction.  I could just make out a small, desultory wave. 

My hair had returned to its former state by the time I left them, but a trace of sulfur and the women’s throaty laughter stayed with me.

Jesus falls for the third time

In Rio, the authorities became worried about the persistence of the Canudos rebels.   Their self-sufficiency was threatening the latifundo order, the centuries-old system of land ownership the Europeans had imported to Latin America that protected the rich and disenfranchised the poor.  The emergent republic had no plans to dismantle the privilege of the rich.

In the third battle, the military went all out, sending in a notorious commander known as the “head-chopper” to lead the attack against the community.  Under the intense heat, the wheels of the wagon trains carrying the British-made cannons sunk into the sand. The commander suffered a succession of epileptic seizures accompanied by visual hallucinations.  Speech failed him. 

What visions came to him were not recorded.  Who knows what phantasms may have confounded him in the shimmer and tremble of his terrible mission.

He was shot and killed on the first day.

Blessed are those who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness.

The government failed for the third time.

Jesus is stripped of his clothing

My Holy Week baptism was a shower in a wooden shack.

Monte Santo was still without running water.  To bathe I was directed to a small structure behind the aunties’ house, given a towel and a well-worn bar of soap.  A rickety stepladder led up to the roof where a man with a straw hat and pants rolled up to the knee negotiated the weight of a wooden barrel of water.  It was explained that I would shout for him to pour the water down through a large hole in the ceiling and, similarly, yell when I wanted him to stop.  The aunts assured me that the man would not peer down at my nakedness.  It was tricky to catch the rhythm of start and stop.  Start to wet my hair and body. Stop to soap up.  Start to rinse.  Stop again.  Where did the water come from, I wondered.   How deep were the wells?

Jesus is nailed to the cross

As our yellow Volkswagen Beetle navigated the unpaved side streets of Monte Santo, I caught a glimpse of men on ladders, dismantling skeins of fat colored lightbulbs that had provided an evening’s entertainment as the first-ever public electric illumination.   Their removal was a concession to Holy Week.

Dedéga opened his front door wide and greeted me with a smile.  The caretaker of an eclectic collection of objects recovered from the Sertão, he would give me a tour of the ‘museum’ he had set up in his home.  My host didn’t have the roughness I expected of a country man.  Dedéga’s hands were smooth, his sharp eyes took in everything about me with a considered air.  I doubted whether I was quick enough to match him in conversation so I kept quiet.

The artifacts, bequeathed to Dedéga by his father, included the accordion of Luiz Gonzaga, a giant of Brazilian popular music of the 20th century who was known by his distinctive leather hat, a bandit’s half-moon decorated with stars. There were old photographs, rusty muskets, crudely fashioned wood cuts, a battered trumpet that had lost its valves, a set of finely polished cobbler’s lasts that would have maintained the sharp fit of a pair of military boots.  What enchanted me most were the patterned porcelain bowls and pitchers and the golden trinkets that Dedéga had found while canvassing the backlands.  He told me they had been abandoned in haste by minor Portuguese royalty who had tried to replicate their European empire in the Sertão only to be defeated by the relentless drought and sand storms.  Buried under a hundred years of misery, it was believed a treasure of gold and precious stones was waiting, along with a lost European princess, eternally imprisoned by the greed and avarice of men.   There was a local saying, a curse, really, attributed to Conselheiro, that promised that one day, “The sea will become the Sertão and the Sertão will become a sea.”

Jesus dies

I stood on the first of the hand-hewn stones that made a path up the hill, the centerpiece of Monte Santo.  The stones had been set down 200 years before I arrived, under the direction of a Capuchin friar who found the site reminiscent of Jerusalem’s Mount Calvary and was determined to re-create it in the midst of those drylands, at the nexus of the sacred and profane.

Small groups of the faithful, dressed in shorts or skimpy dresses, barefoot, made ready to scale the long rocky road on their knees, committing to a Good Friday blood sacrifice of torn skin and bruising.  I climbed along behind them in flip flops, my one ‘good’ skirt flouncing at the calf, goosebumps rising on my bare arms.   I didn’t make the treacherous ascent on my knees as they did but followed close behind on foot, hoping to catch a glimpse of whatever mystery might reveal itself to the truly devoted. 

There were fourteen Stations of the Cross on Jesus’ march to Calvary.  The Sertanejo penitents subjected themselves to a more prolonged suffering.  Twenty six tiny chapels lined the uphill trail.  They all had names:  Our Lord of Footsteps, Our Lady of Pain.  Ex-votos, carved wooden extremities — heads, arms, legs, hearts – hung from their miniature rafters.  Each represented a petitioner with a sick loved one, or perhaps his own diseased body part, negotiating with God for relief.  At the top of the hill, the Via Sacra (the Holy Way) terminated at the chapel of Santa Cruz where images of the Death of Our Lord, Our Lady of Loneliness and St John the Baptist were displayed.

When I reached Santa Cruz, an apparition in white caught my attention.  On the opposite side of the hill from where I had come, I saw robed figures picking their way through the scrub.  They moved like dancers, arms outstretched, legs extended, occasionally entwining elbows or bending towards the earth.  Their garments rippled as if stirred by an invisible wind.  The daylight narrowed.  I paused there considering what it might mean to join them, to enter into that other realm of being.

Jesus is taken down from the Cross

Sometime after I had read and re-read Rita’s letter and folded it away in a drawer, I learned that Raimundinho had been hit by a car and dragged across several lanes of one of São Paulo’s wide avenues to end up pinned against the meridian.  

In the fourth battle of Canudos, in 1897, the government sent in their full fire power and murdered most of the residents.  On the final day of judgement as many as 30,000 men, women and children were killed.  Their camp was burned to the ground, women were raped, children were decapitated.  The president of the new republic, Prudente de Morais, declared, “In Canudos no stone upon stone will remain so that never again can this evil citadel be reproduced.”

The soldiers who survived trudged home to Rio to be lauded for their victory.  Instead of the anticipated back pay, all they received was an inhospitable piece of land in the hills far from the beach.  They named it favela after the white flowers they had seen in the Sertão, bursts of honeysuckle-like blooms surrounded by poisonous thorns and spikey green leaves.

“Canudos did not surrender,” wrote author Euclides da Cunha in his renown first-hand account of the conflict, Os Sertoes.  “The only case of its kind in history, it held out to the last man.  There were only four of them left: an old man, two other fully-grown men, and a child, facing a furiously raging army of five thousand soldiers.  We shall spare ourselves the task of describing the last moments.  We could not describe them.”

In the 1960s, the ruins of Canudos were covered over by the Cocorobó Dam.  Antonio Conselheiro’s grave was buried under sixty feet of water.  The military dictatorship meant to erase any trace that might serve to inspire future resistance.  The War of Canudos remains the bloodiest campaign ever fought on Brazilian soil. 

From my vantage point on the heights of Monte Santo, the Sertão spread itself out before me.  The ground fissured, sketching borderlines around the grey, green, shadows, hills, boulders and dappled light.

I could not see the dam or the water or the ghosts of vultures circling in the air.

Jesus is laid in the tomb

Raimundinho had always seemed bereft in the city, like “a stray dog in a crowd of cattle wandering recklessly”, in the words of an old song.  The whole history of the Sertão could be read in his fragile body, cheekbones sharpened by a hunger for home and justice, fingers taking comfort in the piercing melodies of desert troubadours as he stroked the frets.  The news of his passing reminded me how united with him I had felt in those silent moments in São Paulo, comrades in exile.  Except that Rai knew where he belonged and I, like the itinerants of Canudos, was at the beginning of finding my way.

Dona Teresa eventually warmed up to me, sewing me cotton skirts and velvet dresses hand embroidered with beads and sequins.  If I was still lacking any essential bona fides, she had forgotten them.  Whether or not her son was still in love with me, she had taken me in.  At her 90th birthday party in 2019,  she danced with her seven daughters and pulled me into the circle of women to twist and sway, hands clasped together.

When I returned to Salvador from my sojourn in Monte Santo, the boyfriend and I got back together for a good stretch.  I remained in the little house where he lived with his older sisters long after our final break up, long after he had left for his own journey to make a musical career. I was grateful that he had gotten me into something, a family, a place, a language, an open canvas of big ideas, struggle and passion.   Something to fight for even when there’s every chance of losing.

Cyclically, the endemic drought of the Sertão returns and drains the reservoir, revealing the ruins of the church that marks the heart of the Canudos encampment.  The remaining stones arch upward out of the water like a sea monster’s spine, ready to strike.  Some things cannot be buried forever.  The broken places are where the story begins.

Tracy Mann is a contributor to the John F. Kennedy, Jr. anthology “250 Ways to Make America Better”.   She has written lyrics for Grammy Award-winning albums by the Manhattan Transfer and Sarah Vaughan and been a scriptwriter for the children’s television series “My Little Pony.”  Her writing has appeared in the Earth Island Journal and the Sarah Lawrence Writing Institute Journal.   She is currently at work on a memoir about Brazil.